"Dictatorships and Double Standards" (New York: Simon and
1982) laid out a bleak picture for the possibility of internal
in Communist-controlled nations: "Not all Communist
governments feature slave labor, forced migrations, engineered famines, and forced separations of the sort
that have at some time characterized the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Afghanistan," she wrote. "Not all have,
after the fashion of Stalin or Castro, imprisoned tens of thousands of political prisoners. But none has
produced either freedom or development. Not one has evolved into a democracy. Not one" (Kirkpatrick, 6).
Happily, matters turned out differently -- both Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself swiftly abandoned
Communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This would be amazing in itself, but what is more startling is
that the ruling elites of the former communist countries typically gave up some, most, or all of their power
without violence. Historically, power transfers in authoritarian regimes came via coups or civil war. While
violence broke out in Romania and Yugoslavia, the remainder of the former East Bloc serves as a historical
anomaly. Indeed, this exception is all the more puzzling because totalitarianism seemingly lacked the
weaknesses of traditional authoritarian regimes. By breaking down every element of pluralism, totalitarianism
seemed to possess the ability to crush organized opposition of any kind.
Since the Communist collapse does not appear to fit our standard picture of how oppressive
governments can be abolished, it would be good to look at some other traditions of thought on the question of
social change and see if any of them might apply. Of these, one neglected but useful perspective comes from
the tradition of nonviolent resistance. While almost exclusively associated with Gandhi, the idea has a long
history of theory and practice. This bibliographic essay outlines the contours of this tradition, beginning with
its roots in the more general theory of resistance to tyranny; it then explores the theory and practice of
nonviolent resistance and its implications for classical liberal social theory.
***Resistance Thought: Violent and Nonviolent
An excellent survey of the history of theories justifying resistance to tyranny is Oscar Jszi and John D.
Lewis, "Against the Tyrant: The Tradition and Theory of Tyrannicide" (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957). While
it focuses on the question of tyrannicide, it actually covers a much wider ground. Unsurprisingly, the concepts
of tyranny and justified resistance to authority simultaneously arose in ancient Greece. Plato and Aristotle
discussed tyranny without commenting on the permissibility of resistance to the state, but the histories of
Xenophon and Herodotus openly sympathized with instances of tyrannicide. Romans also considered
tyrannicide. Cicero, Plutarch, Seneca, and Polybius explicitly endorsed it. Presumably, they would have
endorsed less drastic resistance to authority as well. Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and
William of Ockham endorsed a limited right to resistance against tyranny. Finally, during the Italian
Renaissance, the revival of classical authors led to a parallel revival of interest in the right of resistance
against unjust government.
The question of resistance appeared in its modern form and won profound practical significance during
the Protestant Reformation. While Martin Luther and John Calvin denied the right of resistance in any form,
their intellectual heirs -- especially Calvin's -- questioned the doctrine that all "powers that be are ordained of
God" (Romans 13:1) and considered justifications for rebellion against political and religious persecution.
British Calvinists radicalized first. John Ponet, successively Bishop of Rochester and of Winchester, defended
resistance and tyrannicide in his book "A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power" (1556; reprinted in
Winthrop S. Hudson, "John Ponet" (1516?-1556), Advocate of Limited Monarchy [Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1942]). The Scottish Calvinist John Knox turned radically against
passive resistance and defended the right to establish the true religion by force if necessary.
Knox's English compatriot Christopher Goodman took a similar line. Knox's most famous work
is his tract "The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women" (1558;
reprinted in Knox, On Rebellion, ed. Roger A. Mason [New York: Cambridge University Press,
1994], 3-47). Goodman is best known for "How Superior Powers Ought to Be Obeyed of Their
Subjects" (1558; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1972).
Franois Hotman's "Francogallia" (1573; trans. J. H. M. Salmon and ed. Ralph E. Giesey,
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972; Julian H. Franklin, trans. and ed.,
"Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century: Three Treatises by Hotman, Beza,
and Mornay" [New York: Pegasus, 1969], 47-96) initiated the genre of French Calvinist
resistance -- or "monarchomach" -- literature. In it he argued that historically, the French
monarch had been limited, subject to both election and deposition by the people. "It has been
sufficiently demonstrated, we believe," Hotman concludes in the third edition, "that the kings
of France have not been granted unmeasured and unlimited power by their countrymen, and
cannot be considered absolute" ("Constitutionalism and Resistance," 90). For a detailed
treatment of Hotman's life and thought, see Donald Kelley, "Franois Hotman: A Revolutionary's
Ordeal" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).
Theodore Beza's "Right of Magistrates" (1574; "Constitutionalism and Resistance,"
97-135) gave this historical critique a firmer theoretical background. Fearing individual
rebellion, he gave special weight to the right of lesser magistrates to rebel against a tyrant. He
countenanced individual rebellion only against tyrants without legitimate titles -- but, only if
the resistance of lesser magistrates failed. Philippe du Plessis-Mornay, in his "Defence of
Liberty Against Tyrants" (1579; "Constitutionalism and Resistance," 137-99) essentially drew
the same conclusions, emphasizing that the people, not the king, are properly the owners of the
kingdom. Julian Franklin has abridged and commented upon all three works in his
Constitutionalism and Resistance. Franklin emphasizes that the Calvinist resistance literature
needed to avoid radical conclusions to convince moderate Catholics to join the Huguenot
cause. Quentin Skinner's "The Foundations of Modern Political Thought," vol. 2, "The Age of
Reformation" (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978) contains an extensive discussion
of Hotman, Beza, and Mornay, as well as lesser-known Calvinist authors and comments on
their Lutheran, Catholic Scholastic, and humanist predecessors. For a general treatment of
Huguenot thought, see Michael Walzer, "The Revolution of the Saints" (New York: Atheneum,
The radical Calvinists' interest in the right of resistance spread to broader religious
circles. The humanist thinker George Buchanan defended the right to resist tyranny not on
partisan religious grounds but on the basis of social contract theory and Aristotle's politics.
"Powers of the Crown of Scotland" (1579; trans. C. F. Arrowood, Austin: Texas University
Press, 1949) is his most famous book; I. D. McFarlane, in his "Buchanan" (London: Duckworth,
1981), offers a more detailed treatment of his thought. At the same time, Catholics like Juan de
Mariana and Francisco Surez validated the right of resistance against tyranny. Using state of
nature theory and the idea that rulers' power is delegated rather than inherent, both of these
Jesuit thinkers justified some form of the right of resistance. Surez stood behind the classical
distinction between the usurper and the tyrant-by-conduct. While it was permissible to use
violence against a usurper, such could be justified against a tyrant-by-conduct in only the most
extreme situations. Mariana took a more extreme view; he bypassed the dichotomy between the
two types of unjust rulers and argued for every individual's right to kill a tyrant. Most of Surez's
thought on resistance is in his "Tractatus de legibus" (1612; translated in "Selections from
Three Works of Francisco Surez" [New York: Oxford University Press, 1944]). Mariana's chief
work in this area is "The King and the Education of the King" (1599; ed. and trans. George
Albert Moore, Washington, DC: Country Dollar Press, 1948).
It should be emphasized that the monarchomachs chiefly justified resistance as such,
rather than nonviolent resistance. Their principal contemporary critics are Jean Bodin and
William Barclay. See Bodin, "On Sovereignty: Four Chapters from 'The Six Books of the
Commonwealth'" (1576; ed. and trans. Julian H. Franklin, New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1992) and Barclay, "The Kingdom and the Regal Power" (1600; translated, Chevy Chase,
MD: Country Dollar Press, 1954). Both argue that this was more likely to lead to endless
bloodshed and further tyranny than anything else. In this context, Etienne de La Boetie's
"Discourse on Voluntary Servitude" (1577; trans. Harry Kurz, 1942; reprinted as "The Politics
of Obedience: 'The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude'" [New York: Free Life Editions, 1975])
appeared, promoting the efficacy of nonviolent resistance. Anticipating David Hume's "Of the
First Principles of Government" (1777; reprinted as "Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary", ed.
Eugene F. Miller, rev. ed.[Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987], 32-36), La Boetie saw that the
rule of a tiny minority over society was possible only if the majority voluntarily accepted it.
Taking it one step further, La Boetie argued that the social consensus theory implied that
it could overthrow tyranny peaceably if the majority withdrew its consent. "It is therefore," he
wrote, "the inhabitants themselves who permit, or, rather, bring about their own subjection,
since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their servitude" (La Boetie, 50). While La
Boetie's arguments for mass civil disobedience seem more moderate than the Huguenot
justification for violent resistance, he is, in every other respect, far more radical. All tyrants, he
argued, whether by inheritance, force of arms, or elections, are equally bad and, therefore,
equally permissible to resist. Perhaps most significant, La Boetie justified resistance not
through custom or national tradition but because "freedom is our natural state" (La Boetie, 57).
La Boetie explained the oppressed state of mankind with a theory of ideology and caste
exploitation. The former, he contended, suppresses humanity's natural urge for freedom; the
latter develops as a tyrant fortifies power by privileging a pyramid of followers.
Despite the originality of La Boetie's theory, it exerted little influence on subsequent
theorists who continued to equate resistance with violence. Thus, the three pillars of
seventeenth-century British resistance theory -- Locke, Sidney, and Milton -- focused chiefly on
violent revolution. John Locke, in his "Essay concerning Civil Government," the second of the
"Two Treatises of Government" (1689; student ed., ed. Peter Laslett, New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1988), not only justified rebellion against tyranny but also assumed that
physical force existed as the necessary means to subdue a tyrant. While more moderate than
Locke on many questions, Algernon Sidney in his "Discourses concerning Government" (1698;
reprint, ed. Thomas G. West, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1990) militantly advocated violent
revolution against tyrants. And John Milton in his book "The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates"
(1649; reprinted in "Political Writings," ed. Martin Dzelzainis [New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1991], 1-48), defended the right of the people to execute a tyrant if the
established watchdogs failed to manage him effectively.
The nineteenth century produced two significant theorists of nonviolent resistance: Henry
David Thoreau and Count Leo Tolstoy. In Thoreau's famous essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849;
reprinted in "On Civil Disobedience: American Essays, Old and New,' ed. Robert A. Goldwin
[Chicago: Rand McNally, 1969], 11-31), he argued that the individual had a moral duty to resist
unjust acts of government. While not primarily a work on collective action, Thoreau noted that
"[i]f the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will
not hesitate which to choose. . . . When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has
resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished" ("On Civil Disobedience," 21).
One can find Tolstoy's arguments on nonviolence in the compilation "Tolstoy's Writings on
Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence" (New York: Bergman, 1967). Unlike Thoreau, who
largely treated his conclusions as simply the consistent application of Jeffersonian principles,
Tolstoy based his condemnations of violence on the philosophy presented in the New
Testament. His most notable essays on the issue of non-violence include "Patriotism, or
Peace?" which argued that the general renunciation of patriotism was a precondition of
international peace and his "Notes for Officers" and "Notes for Soldiers", which argued that
members of the military had a duty to resign their posts and obey their consciences rather than
the state. For more on Tolstoy's political thought, see his "The Law of Violence and the Law of
Love" (New York: Rudolph Field, 1948), in which he favorably cited the work of La Boetie on
the efficacy of nonviolent struggle against tyranny.
Tolstoy's "A Letter to a Hindu: The Subjection of India -- Its Cause and Cure" in "Tolstoy
Centenary Edition," vol. 21, "Recollections and Essays" (New York: Oxford University Press,
1937) significantly influenced the twentieth-century's preeminent exponent of nonviolence,
Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi began his lifetime interest in nonviolence when, as a lawyer in South
Africa, he used nonviolence to help repeal governmental discrimination against the Indian
minority. He later acquired world fame for his leadership of the nonviolent struggle for Indian
independence from the British. One can find a good sampling of Gandhi's writings in his
"Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha)" (New York: Schocken Books, 1951). While Gandhi's
advocacy of nonviolence was chiefly religious and deontological, he also defended its
practicality. Not only will nonviolence win more public support than violence, he argued, but it
also has a greater chance to convert one's opponents and succeed with minimal casualties. In a
typical passage, Gandhi wrote that a "civil resister never uses arms and hence is harmless to a
State that is at all willing to listen to the voice of public opinion. He is dangerous for an
autocratic state, for he brings about its fall by engaging public opinion upon the matter for
which he resists the State" (Gandhi, 174). Elsewhere, echoing La Boetie, Gandhi stated that in
"politics, its [power's] use is based upon the immutable maxim that government of the people is
possible only so long as they consent either consciously or unconsciously to be governed"
Gandhi makes for difficult reading because he mixed religious ideas with more practical
observations. Gene Sharp does a good job of disentangling these two strains in his "Gandhi as a
Political Strategist" (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1979). If one ignores Gandhi's religious views and
focuses on his discussion of practical strategic questions, one finds a shrewd and insightful
thinker in the tradition of La Boetie. Several of Sharp's interpretive essays -- especially "Gandhi
on the Theory of Voluntary Servitude" -- bring together the bits and pieces of Gandhi's theory
of nonviolent resistance. For further writings on Gandhi's philosophy which emphasize his
mystical side, see Raghavan N. Iyer, "The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi"
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) and Joan Bondurant, "Conquest of Violence: The
Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958). For an
unsympathetic view, see Murray Rothbard, 'The New Menace of Gandhism,' in "Libertarian
Forum," March 1983, 1-6, which focuses on his mysticism and economic program.
***Nonviolent Resistance: Theory and History
There can be little doubt that today's foremost thinker sympathetic to nonviolent
resistance is Gene Sharp. With an eye toward practical strategy rather than philosophy, his
major work "The Politics of Nonviolent Action" (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973) covers virtually
every aspect of the theory and history of nonviolent resistance to government. In the opening of
the book, Sharp carefully crafts his arguments as an extensive discussion of the nature of
power. He draws on the long tradition of thinkers who argue that ideology and consent --
whether grudging or enthusiastic -- rather than brute force are the ultimate basis of political
power. If a large enough segment of the population refuses to comply with the government, it
will lose its ability to rule. Merely the threat of non-compliance is often serious enough to
provoke the government to redress grievances. Moreover, when governments use violence
against protesters who are clearly committed to nonviolence, they undermine their ideological
foundations and often make uncontested rule even more difficult. He cites such diverse thinkers
as Auguste Comte, Etienne de La Boetie, David Hume, Gaetano Mosca, Bertrand de Jouvenel,
Max Weber, Jeremy Bentham, Montesquieu, and Niccol Machiavelli.
Sharp distinguishes between three stages of nonviolence: protest and persuasion; social,
economic, and political non-cooperation; and nonviolent intervention. Normally a movement
begins with the first stage and gradually escalates until the government meets its demands or
agrees to compromise. As examples of protest and persuasion Sharp lists public speeches,
petitions, distribution of literature, public demonstrations, and fraternizing with low-ranking
soldiers and other government enforcers.
Nonviolent resisters bring more serious sanctions to bear when they resort to social,
economic, and political non-cooperation. Here Sharp offers as examples social boycott,
excommunication, student strikes (social non-cooperation); consumers' boycotts, workers'
strikes, refusal to pay fees, rent, or interest, refusal to accept a government's money (economic
non-cooperation); and the boycott of legislative bodies and elections, draft resistance, tax
resistance, deliberate bureaucratic inefficiency, and mutiny (political non-cooperation). Unlike
protest and persuasion, many of these tactics could pressure a government into changing its
policies without actually changing anyone's mind.
Sharp's final category, nonviolent intervention, includes the most radical forms of
resistance against authority. Some examples include fasting until death (Gandhi's famed tactic),
sit-ins, occupying or surrounding critical government buildings, blocking of roads, setting up
alternative markets and transportation systems (such as black markets), overloading
administrative systems, and forming a parallel government.
Sharp documents a number of examples for each category. While not all of them have
met with success, the historical effectiveness of nonviolent action is surprising. One familiar
but neglected example is colonial resistance to Britain before the American Revolution from
1765 to 1775. For further details on the nonviolent stage of colonial resistance, see Edmund S.
Morgan and Helen M. Morgan, "The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution" (New York:
Collier Books, 1963); Lawrence Henry Gipson, "The British Empire Before the American
Revolution" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961-1965); Arthur Schlesinger, "The Colonial
Merchants and the American Revolution" (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966); Lawrence
Henry Gipson, "The Coming of the American Revolution" (New York: Harper Torchbooks,
1962); and Murray Rothbard, "Conceived in Liberty," vol. 3, "Advance to Revolution,
1760-1775" (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1976). The famous boycotts of tea and other
British imports, refusal to pay taxes such as those required by the Stamp Act, and ostracism of
the Tories imposed serious costs upon the British government, leading to desperate action to
preserve British authority in the colonies. Fewer works on later American tax resistance exist.
See, however, Dall W. Forsythe's "Taxation and Political Change in the Young Nation,
1781-1833" (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), and James Ring Adams, "Secrets of
the Tax Revolt" (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), both of which David T. Beito
discusses at length in 'Tax Revolts in American History,' "Humane Studies Review" 4 (Winter
1986-87). Beito's major work in this area, "Taxpayers in Revolt: Tax Resistance during the
Great Depression" (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), offers a broad
discussion of the largest tax rebellion in modern America; he emphasizes the tax resistance in
Chicago during the New Deal era.
Post-World War I Germany yields two significant examples of the effective use of
nonviolence. In 1920, a pro-monarchist faction led by Dr. Wolfgang Kapp attempted to seize
control of the Weimar government. German generals, sympathetic to the coup, refused to assist
the civilian government, and many police actively sided with Kapp's forces. In response,
President Theodor Ebert called a general strike and bureaucratic non-cooperation. While the
military eventually came to the aid of the elected government, nonviolent resistance acted as
the chief obstacle to Kapp's seizure of power. For more details on the Kapp putsch, see Erich
Eyck, "A History of the Weimar Republic" (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962).
A second instance of the use of nonviolence came during the so-called Ruhrkampf from 1923
to 1925. When Germany defaulted on its war reparation payments, French and Belgian troops
entered the Ruhr -- one of Germany's chief industrial centers -- to extract the payments by
force. Strikes and civilian and bureaucratic obstruction made the occupation so costly that the
French and Belgians withdrew without net gain. Wolfgang Sternstein, 'The Ruhrkampf of 1923:
Economic Problems of Civilian Defense,' in "Civilian Resistance as a National Defense," ed.
Adam Roberts (Harrisburg, PA: Stockpole Books, 1968) discusses the Ruhrkampf instance at
We must turn back to the Indian struggle for independence from Great Britain, the most
famous and successful twentieth-century nonviolent movement. While Indian independence
quickly sparked ethnic violence and failed to deliver prosperity and freedom to ordinary Indians
and Pakistanis, the struggle compares favorably to violent colonial outbreaks such as in
Algeria. Sharp estimates that if one takes India's population into account, Algerian-level
casualties would have left India with three million to three and a half million people dead. The
number of Indians actually killed while taking part in nonviolence was about eight thousand.
(See Sharp, "Gandhi as a Political Strategist," 7.) Indians tried virtually every nonviolent tactic
-- tax resistance (such as the famous salt march), boycotts of British goods, failure to support
the British war effort, and fasting -- during the independence movement. For more details on
the history of the Indian struggle with the British, see Michael Edwardes, "The Last Years of
British India" (London: Cassell, 1963); Ram Gopal, "How India Struggled for Freedom: A
Political History" (Bombay: Book Centre, 1967); Francis Hutchins, "India's Revolution: Gandhi
and the Quit India Movement" (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973); and R.P.
Masani, "British in India: An Account of British Rule in the Indian Subcontinent" (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1960).
The most famous nonviolent struggle in recent American history has been the civil rights
movement. A few of the many histories of the combat for legal equality for blacks -- fought
largely with nonviolent tactics -- are: Arthur I. Waskow, "From Race Riot to Sit-in: 1919 and
the 1960's" (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966); James Farmer, "Freedom -- When?" (New
York: Random House, 1954); and Alan F. Westin, ed., "Freedom Now: The Civil-Rights
Struggle in America" (New York: Basic Books, 1964). Martin Luther King Jr.'s theories of
nonviolent resistance should not be overlooked. Besides 'Letter from the Birmingham Jail'
(Goldwin, ed., "On Civil Disobedience", 61-77), King's other works on nonviolence and the
civil rights movement include "Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story" (New York:
Ballantine Books, 1958) and "Why We Can't Wait" (New York: New American Library, 1964).
For a broader look at the struggle of black Americans, most of it nonviolent, see Joan Grant,
ed., "Black Protest: History, Documents, and Analyses, 1619 to the Present" (Greenwich, CT:
Fawcett, 1968); Carleton Mabee, "Black Freedom: The Nonviolent Abolitionists from 1830
Through the Civil War" (New York: Macmillan, 1977); and John Hope Franklin, "From Slavery
to Freedom," 6th ed. (New York: Knopf, 1988).
Sharp lists many historical examples of both nonviolent struggles and violent struggles
with a large nonviolent component. His examples include: Hungarian resistance to the Austrian
empire from 1850 to 1867; the Belgian suffragist enlargement strikes in 1893, 1902, and 1913;
Finland's opposition to Russian rule from 1898 to 1905; and the Russian Revolution of 1905
and 1906. Anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa were also often nonviolent. They included
China's boycotts against the Japanese between 1906 and 1919; the struggle of the Indian
minority in South Africa against discrimination from 1906 to 1914 and again in 1946; and
Samoan resistance against New Zealand from 1919 to 1936. See Gene Sharp, "Social Power
and Political Freedom" (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1980) for a comprehensive list.
Sharp finds a common pattern throughout the history of nonviolent resistance. After a
movement for social change acquires any sort of influence, it typically meets with repression.
While badly organized movements collapse as soon as resistance begins, the inculcation of
solidarity and discipline (akin in some ways to the training of normal soldiers) can hold a
movement together long enough to win attention and score some victories. Moreover, the very
fact that the protesters remain committed to nonviolence even as the government turns to
repression to combat them tends to win over previously neutral parties, arouse dissent among
the repressing group, and inspire and involve other members of persecuted groups. Sharp
refers to this as "political jiu-jitsu" -- jiu-jitsu being a style of martial art that uses an opponent's
aggressiveness and ferocity against him. Sharp is far from a Panglossian advocate of
nonviolence; indeed, it is precisely because of the possibility of failure that he is interested in
studying the mechanics of nonviolent struggle. But, insofar as it succeeds, it usually does so by
converting opponents, making repression too costly to continue, and threatening the very ability
of the government to maintain power.
END PART ONE
Humane Studies Review Volume 9, Number 1 Summer 1994
THE LITERATURE OF NONVIOLENT RESISTANCE AND CIVILIAN-BASED DEFENSE
by Bryan Caplan
other works in the area of nonviolence are "Exploring Nonviolent
Alternatives" (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1971); "Social Power and Political Freedom: Making
Europe Unconquerable" (London: Taylor and Francis, 1985); "National Security Through
Civilian-Based Defense" (Omaha, NE: Association for Transarmament Studies, 1985); and
"Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System" (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1990). These books overlap one another to a significant extent, but, taken together, they
detail the benefits of nonviolent action as a substitute for violence. Sharp generally utilizes a
comparative institutions approach. For example, he compares the effectiveness of real-world
violence to real-world nonviolence rather than ideal violence to real- world nonviolence as
critics often do. As Sharp puts it, "Comparative evaluations of nonviolent and violent means
must take into consideration that political violence is often defeated also. By conventional
standards, does not one side lose in each international war, civil war and violent revolution?
Such defeats have usually been explained as resulting from certain weaknesses or inadequacies,
such as lack of fighting spirit, insufficient or poor weapons, mistakes in strategy and tactics, or
numerical inferiority. Comparable weaknesses may also lead to defeat in nonviolent action.
The common practice of explaining defeats of political violence in terms of such specific
shortcomings while blaming defeats of nonviolent action on the presumption of its universal
impotence is both irrational and uninformed" (Sharp, "The Politics of Nonviolent Action," p.
With this in mind, he first notes that violence is usually ineffective. The ability of the
government to use violence greatly exceeds that of the rebels. Indeed, violent rebellion often
strengthens oppressive regimes which can plausibly claim that rebel violence necessitates
repression. Government's comparative advantage lies in violent action. The comparative
advantage of the people, in contrast, lies in their ability to deny their voluntary cooperation
without which it is nearly impossible for government to persist. Consider the deadliness to a
government of tax strikes, boycotts, general strikes, and widespread refusal to obey the law.
While these tactics are nonviolent, their universal and unyielding use should terrify any
Nonviolence has other advantages as well. Because it seems less dangerous and radical
than violence, it more easily, as mentioned above, wins broad public support. The costs of
participation are lower, so more people are likely to participate. Traditional noncombatants like
children, women, and the old can effectively participate in nonviolent struggle. It is more likely
to convert opponents and produce internal disagreement within the ruling class. It generally
leads to far fewer casualties and material losses than violence. And since it is more
decentralized than violent action, it is less likely to give rise to an even more oppressive state if
In addition to Sharp's impressive and far-reaching "Politics of Nonviolent Action," one should
examine other works, including Richard B. Gregg's "The Power of Nonviolence" (New York:
Fellowship Publications, 1944), which combines a theoretical discussion with a partial history
of Gandhi's struggle for Indian independence. Gregg's theoretical approach is roughly
equivalent to Sharp's -- albeit in a less detailed systematic form. A. Paul Hare and Herbert H.
Blumberg's "Liberation Without Violence: A Third-Party Approach" (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and
Littlefield, 1977) offers a collection of largely historical essays on the use of nonviolence in
India, the United States, Africa, and Cyprus. V.K. Kool, ed., "Perspectives on Nonviolence"
(New York: Springer-Verlag, 1990) collects thirty essays on various topics relating to
nonviolence, including a keynote address by Kenneth Boulding. Leroy Pelton, in "The
Psychology of Nonviolence" (New York: Pergamon, 1974), takes a psychological approach,
focusing on the ability of nonviolent resistance to change minds while avoiding a vicious spiral
of escalating violence.
***Civilian Based Defense
If nonviolent action can effectively force one's government to change its policies or
abandon power, then plausibly similar tactics might succeed against a foreign invader. And,
since most nonviolence has historically been sporadic and unorganized, it might bepossible to
increase its effectiveness through training and strategic and tactical planning. These two
possibilities have sparked interest in "civilian-based defense" -- the self-conscious use of
nonviolent means for the goal of national defense. Sharp defines civilian-based defense as "a
projected refinement of the general technique of nonviolent action, or civilian struggle, as it
has occurred widely in improvised forms in the past. This policy is an attempt deliberately to
adapt and develop that technique to meet defense needs, and thereby potentially to provide...
deterrence to those particular forms of attack" (Sharp, "Social Power and Political Freedom," p.
While this may appear intuitively impractical at first, on closer examination the argument
may have strong appeal. From the outset, one should note that some of the most famous cases
of nonviolent resistance were carried out against foreign powers: colonial North America and
India against the British; Germany against France and Belgium in the Ruhrkampf; and Hungary
against the rule of the Austrian Empire. Quoting Kenneth Boulding, Sharp writes "What exists,
is possible." More fundamentally, nonviolent resistance never had any of the advantages that
military resistance does. Usually the military has years to train, strategize, prepare arsenals, test
weapons, stockpile necessary resources, and study the past for lessons. But, nonviolent
struggles have almost always been carried out without the benefit of personnel training or
tactical and strategic planning. What would happen if countries spent as much energy preparing
for a nonviolent struggle as they do for a military struggle? This is a question that Sharp and
other authors sympathetic to civilian-based defense have tried to answer.
As with most scholarship on nonviolence, the work of Gene Sharp dominates the area of
civilian-based defense. "Social Power and Political Freedom," a collection of essays on topics
relating to nonviolence, contains two well-written introductory essays to the theory of
civilian-based defense: "ÔThe Political Equivalent of War' -- Civilian-Based Defense,"and
"Popular Empowerment." "The Political Equivalent of War," criticizes traditional solutions to
the problem of war: removing its "causes,"; pacifism and unilateral disarmament; world
government; and negotiated general disarmament. He also discusses the history of nonviolence,
with examples from the Montgomery boycotts, the Soviet prison camp resistance at Vorkuta,
and German and Norwegian opposition to Nazi policies.
These introductory examples provide a springboard for an extensive discussion of
civilian-based defense. Sharp insists that deterrents are not limited to standard military ones.
Rather, it is merely necessary for nonviolence to make occupation so difficult that the costs of
conquest exceed the benefits. Massive tax resistance, boycotts, incitement of desertion, and
strikes might accomplish this. And, if a would-be conqueror realized that nonviolent techniques
might make the costs of occupation skyrocket, he might be deterred from trying. Sharp
considers specific ways to prepare effective civilian-based defense: general education and
training in the techniques of nonviolence, as well as a "West Point" for training specialists; the
wide-spread dissemination of publishing and broadcasting equipment to prevent invaders from
seizing all of the means of communication; and local stockpiles should exist to ease the pain of
a general strike. Lastly, Sharp considers questions of strategy. He contrasts a "nonviolent
Blitzkrieg" -- a policy of total non-cooperation, a general strike, and massive protests -- with the
less dramatic but more sustainable "selective resistance" -- targeting specific institutions for
protection and defense and certain enemy policies for defiance and protest.
"Popular Empowerment" offers another telling point. While standard military defense is
easy for a government to use against its own people, civilian-based defense is not.
Civilian-based defense is a positive check against the abuse of power. If the government acts
improperly, the same techniques that the citizenry can wield against foreigners can be turned on
its own leaders. National defense, properly understood, shields society from all oppression,
both foreign and domestic.
"Making Europe Unconquerable" was Sharp's attempt to apply his theory of
civilian-based defense to the protection of Western Europe against a Soviet invasion. While the
subject is perhaps passe, the work is useful because it investigates a fairly specific issue in
detail. Moreover, those who doubted the efficacy of nonviolence against the Soviets may find it
a more plausible tool against the less serious threats that European nations face today.
"Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives," one of Sharp's shorter pieces, applies the analysis to the
question of national defense. "National Security Through Civilian-Based Defense," a long
pamphlet, does nearly the same. "Civilian-Based Defense," Sharp's most recent book,
summarizes his lifetime of scholarly research on nonviolence. It also contains fascinating
treatments of the use of nonviolence in the final overthrow of communism in EasternEurope.
Short, clear, and wide-ranging, "Civilian-Based Defense" is the best single piece to read on the
Some of the most interesting scholarship on civilian-based defense by authors other than
Sharp appears in Roberts, ed., "Civilian Resistance as a National Defence." Notable essays
include Sir Basil Liddell Hart's "Lessons from Resistance Movements -- Guerrilla and
Nonviolent"; Theodor Ebert's "Nonviolent Resistance Against Communist Regimes?"; Jeremy
Bennett's "The Resistance Against the German Occupation of Denmark 1940-5"; Magne
Skodvin, "Norwegian Nonviolent Resistance During the German Occupation"; and Wolfgang
Sternstein, "The Ruhrkampf of 1923: Economic Problems of Civilian Defense." One should
also see T.K. Mahadevan, Adam Roberts, and Gene Sharp, eds., "Civilian Defense: An
Introduction" (New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1967).
For other books on civilian-based defense, see Sir Stephen King-Hall, "Defence in the
Nuclear Age" (London: Victor Gollancz, 1958), which argues that Britain should unilaterally
give up its nuclear weapons stockpile, since the possession of nuclear weapons makes Britain a
more likely target for a hostile nuclear attack; he recommends civilian-based defense. Norman
Freund, in "Nonviolent National Defense: A Philosophical Inquiry into Applied Nonviolence"
(New York: University Press of America, 1987), summarizes many of the main arguments for
civilian-based defense, as does Krishnalal Shridharani, "War Without Violence: A Study of
Gandhi's Methods and Its Accomplishments" (New York: Garland, 1972). A Quaker
organization, the American Friends Service Committee, defended civilian- based defense in "In
Place of War: An Inquiry into Nonviolent National Defense" (New York: Grossman Publishers,
1967). Anders Boserup and Andrew Mack, "War Without Weapons" (New York: Schocken
Books, 1975), overlaps with Sharp's work; its main innovation is its explicit attempt to
integrate the theory of nonviolence with classical strategic theory as formulated by Clauswitz.
In so doing, Boserup and Mack open the door for the application of both rational choice and
game theories to the question of nonviolence.
**"It Can Only Work Against the British" -- Nonviolence
Almost everyone will concede that nonviolence can work against "civilized" nations. But
what about the hard cases? What about totalitarian governments utterly lacking in moral
scruples and prepared to kill as many people as necessary to cement their rule? Intuitively, the
case against nonviolence in such circumstances is strong. Yet preliminary research into the
history of nonviolent resistance against Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia casts doubt on this
intuition. While nonviolence may be less useful against amoral or immoral tyrants, it is far
Danish, Norwegian, and Dutch resistance to Nazism from 1940 to 1945 was pronounced and
fairly successful. In Norway, for example, teachers refused to promote fascism in the schools.
For this, the Nazis imprisoned a thousand teachers. But, the remaining teachers stood firm,
giving anti-fascist instruction to children and teaching in their homes. This policy made the
pro-fascist Quisling government so unpopular that it eventually released all of the imprisoned
teachers and dropped its attempt to dominate the schools. Other forms of struggle included
ostracism, the refusal to speak to Nazi soldiers and intense social hostility to collaborationists.
Nonviolent struggle in the Netherlands was also fierce. The Dutch organized two general
strikes in Amsterdam; one in 1941 protested mistreatment of Jews, and a second in 1943
opposed the Nazi plan to intern Dutch war veterans in Germany. In Copenhagen, Danes used a
general strike to liberalize martial law. Gene Sharp's sources include Jeremy Bennett, "The
Resistance Against the German Occupation of Denmark 1940-5," in Roberts, pp. 154-172;
Magne Skodvin, "Norwegian Nonviolent Resistance During the German Occupation," in
Roberts, pp. 136-153; Bjarne H¿ye and Trygve M. Ager, "The Fight of the Norwegian Church
Against Nazism" (New York: Macmillan, 1943); and Werner Warmbrunn, "The Dutch Under
German Occupation 1940-1945" (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1963). For a general
treatment of resistance to Nazism, see International Conference on the History of the
Resistance Movements, "European Resistance Movements, 1939-1945 (Oxford: Pergamon
But, surely the most amazing but widely neglected case of nonviolent resistance against Nazi
Germany was the protection of Jews and other persecuted minorities from deportation,
imprisonment, and murder. In "The Lesson of Eichmann: A Review-Essay on Hannah Arendt's
Eichmann in Jerusalem" in "Social Power and Political Freedom," Gene Sharp shows how the
nations which nonviolently resisted National Socialist racial persecutions saved almost all of
their Jews, while Jews in other Nazi-controlled nations were vastly more likely to be placed in
concentration camps and killed. The effort to arrest Norway's seventeen hundred Jews sparked
internal resistance and protest resignations; most of the Norwegian Jews fled to Sweden. In
Belgium, police refused to cooperate with the Germans, and railroad workers sabotaged trains
transporting imprisoned Jews. Apparently no Belgian Jews died at Nazi hands, and about half
of all foreign Jews living in Belgium survived occupation. While Vichy France helped deport
foreign Jews, it refused to cooperate in the deportation of French Jews; in consequence, eighty
percent were saved. Even though Italy was a German ally, Italians did not share Hitler's
anti-Semitism. As a result of bureaucratic resistance and non-cooperation, ninety percent of
Italian Jews were saved.
When Himmler tried to crack down on Danish Jews, the Danes thwarted his efforts. Not
only did the Danish government and people resist -- through bureaucratic slowdowns and
noncooperation -- but, surprisingly, the German commander in Denmark also refused to help
organize Jewish deportations. This prompted Himmler to import special troops to arrest Jews.
But, in the end almost all Danish Jews escaped unharmed. In Bulgaria, the parliament refused
to assist the German anti-Jewish measures, and Bulgarians held public demonstrations against
the persecution of Jews. As far as can be known, no Bulgarian Jews were killed or deported by
the Nazis. For more on this, see Hannah Arendt, "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the
Banality of Evil" (New York: Viking Press, 1963). The omnipresent pattern that Arendt finds
and that Sharp emphasizes is that totalitarian governments are not omnipotent. They need the
cooperation of the ruled to exert their will. If a people denies cooperation, even a government
as vicious as Hitler's, bound by few moral constraints, might be unable to get what it wants.
The history of nonviolent struggle against the Soviet Union has, until recently, been
much more bleak. When, in 1953, East Germans used the general strike and other nonviolent
tactics to win better treatment for workers, the Soviets brutally crushed all opposition, leading
to worldwide recognition -- even among socialists -- that the Soviet regime's claim to represent
"workers" was absurd. Stefan Brant, "The East German Rising" (New York: Frederick A.
Praeger, 1957) covers the history of the largely nonviolent 1953 struggle. The Hungarian
uprising in 1956, while generally considered a military struggle, contained strong nonviolent
elements, including a general strike, mass demonstrations, and the formation of a parallel
government. Again, the Soviets harshly repressed it, though it is worth noting that the
nonviolent resistance (for example the general strike in Budapest) held out longer than the
Hungarian military. On this, see Ferenc Vali, "Rift and Revolt in Hungary: Nationalism versus
Communism" (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961) and George Mikes, "The
Hungarian Revolution" (London: Andre Deutsch, 1957).
The Czech struggle of 1968 is a final tragic chapter in the history of resistance to the
Soviets. Remarkably, the Czechs used nonviolent means almost exclusively and, consequently,
lasted considerably longer than did the Hungarians. The Dubcek government ordered its
soldiers to remain in their barracks, the state news agency refused to announce that its
government had "requested" the invasion, and the Czech Congress condemned Soviet actions
and demanded a release of its kidnapped officials. Other forms of resistance included
short-term general strikes, transportation obstruction, and the use of radio to rally the people
against Soviet invaders. Even though the invasion was a complete military success, the Soviets
decided that the political situation made it unwise to replace the Dubcek government with
collaborators. Instead, after some compromise on reforms, they released the kidnapped Czech
leaders and restored them to their previous positions. The liberal reformers retained power for
eight more months, at which point the Russians replaced them with their own favorites. This
ended Czech reforms. On the 1968 struggle see Robert Littell, ed., "The Czech Black Book"
(New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969); Robin Alison Remington, ed., "Winter in Prague"
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969); and Philip Windsor and Adam Roberts, "Czechoslovakia" 1968
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).
It would be easy to draw deeply pessimistic conclusions from this long string of
suppressed attempts to liberalize communist nations. Not only did history support the
pessimistic conclusion of Jeane Kirkpatrick and other conservatives, but it, a priori, also made
sense. Violent revolution in a totalitarian system seemed futile. The ruling elite might fight
amongst itself, but they had no intention of giving up power voluntarily. And, nonviolence
proved clearly useless against conscienceless dictators.
Or did it? As Sharp emphasized, nonviolence can win by converting opponents and
neutrals and by creating divisions within ruling groups. In a way, that was happening for
decades under communism. Not only the people, but also subgroups within the ruling elite
itself gradually came to see the evil and inherent contradictions within their own system.
Circulation of illegal literature, smuggled videotapes, and infiltration of Western cultural
influences slowly eroded confidence. It is a mistake to look at communist nations over the past
few decades and conclude that all resistance had been crushed; rather, it had been occurring
covertly, slowly undermining all of the claims of communist governments of legitimacy.
The move for liberalization began with the Solidarity movement in Poland. One readable
journalistic history of Solidarity is Timothy Garton Ash's, "The Polish Revolution: Solidarity
1980-1982" (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983). Ash emphasizes that the election of a Polish pope
marked the beginning of rising expectations in Poland. By highlighting the role of non-state
institutions, John Paul's election tended to make people more conscious of the distinction
between society and state. Ash describes one of the pope's Polish appearances: "For nine days
the state virtually ceased to exist, except as a censor doctoring the television coverage.
Everyone saw that Poland is not a communist country -- just a communist state" (Ash,p. 29).
The chief tactic of Solidarity was the strike, which it used both to highlight particular
grievances and to attain broader reform. Peter Raina's "Poland 1981: Towards Social Renewal"
(London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985) details the history of Solidarity's tactics, demands,
and compromises that critical year. The author analyzes the precise text of reform bills on
independent trade unions, worker self-management, censorship, and higher education. For a
broader history, see Jadwiga Staniaszkis, "Poland's Self-Limiting Revolution" (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1984). This work gives a solid account of the crucial 1980 through
1982 period -- the height of Solidarity's influence -- but it also discusses moderate reforms
during the 70's, the Polish people's rising expectations prior to Solidarity, and the early period
of Soviet occupation after World War II.
The Solidarity movement and student and peasant associations expressed discontent and
struggled for reform despite harsh persecution. Their limited successes inspired dissidents in
other communist nations to push harder for reform and frightened communist leaders into mild
compromises. One work documenting the spread of the "Polish virus" is Elizabeth Teague's
"Solidarity and the Soviet Worker" (London: Croom Helm, 1988) which discusses the influence
of the Solidarity movement on Soviet politics. The Politburo clearly feared the growth of the
ideas of the Solidarity movement and made concessions to workers in the early 1980s to
prevent this. While Teague found little Polish influence upon ethnic Russians, the Solidarity
movement frequently influenced other ethnicities within the USSR to push peacefully for
reforms in their own republics.
Eventually the accumulated effects of resistance penetrated the Soviet Politburo itself.
Gorbachev announced that Soviet forces would not quell reforms in Eastern Europe. At this
point, the unself-conscious tactics of nonviolent resistance went public. A half million East
Germans demonstrated in Berlin for democratic elections and civil liberties on 4 November
1989. A half million Czechs and Slovaks protested the phony reforms of communist bosses in
Prague three weeks later. Thousands of protesters in Leipzig forced state security headquarters
to submit to public inspection. As Sharp writes, repression often rebounded against the
repressors: "Czechs and Slovaks erected shrines at the main sites of the beatings, raising those
injured to the stature of heroes. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets daily following the
police actions. As one student put it, the beatings were Ôthe spark that started the whole
movement'" (Sharp, "Civilian-Based Defense," pp. 58-59). Success was contagious -- once East
Germany's neighboring communist regimes fell, the East Germans began to flee to West
Germany by way of their government's former allies. In the final chapter, communism within
the Soviet Union itself collapsed, and the last-ditch attempt of hard-line communists to seize
power was foiled with no small thanks to mass demonstrations, fraternization with soldiers, and
other nonviolent tactics.
While there has been some overlap between the classical liberal tradition and the theory
and practice of nonviolent struggle, they remain virtual strangers to one another in scholarship.
There is, however, no intrinsic reason for this. While nonviolence is compatible with many
viewpoints, some of the best arguments in its favor have a rather classical liberal flavor. The
analysis of political power and civil obedience put forth by nonviolence theorists closely
resembles classical liberalism. Similarly, the observation that violent revolution often serves
only the interests of a new elite fits comfortably into the classical liberal tradition. The
nonviolence literature contains few explicit references to spontaneous order, but the idea is
often present nonetheless, especially in Gene Sharp's work. The idiom of the nonviolence
literature is initially foreign, but frequently it is a difference chiefly of style, not of substance.
Classical liberals interested in the issue of nonviolence will find several gaps in the
existing literature waiting to be filled. First of all, the notion of spontaneous order in general,
along with rational choice and game theories, rarely appears. But, these tools could shed
considerable light on the feasibility of nonviolence; they might also help answer the objection
that centrally planned resistance is necessarily more effective than civilian-based defense.
Second, classical liberals may be able to draw on a broader range of historical examples than
the current literature does. The self-conscious resistance movements are its primary focus; but
aren't there many voluntary institutions whose result is to check state power even though that is
no part of the intention of the participants? Thus, the informal economy is rarely a form of
ideological protest, but it is nevertheless a decentralized and nonviolent check upon the abuse
of governmental power. A third insight that classical liberals might introduce and expand is the
role of markets and economic freedom as a nonviolent check upon the state. Since
contemporary advocates of nonviolence tend to be suspicious of capitalism, they often ignore
typically liberal observations.
Classical liberals may learn from -- as well as contribute to -- the nonviolence literature.
Besides its intrinsic interest, it may point the way to answers to several difficult issues within
the classical liberal tradition. Despite their distrust of state power and interventionist foreign
policy, classical liberals have had a difficult time envisioning specific alternatives to violence
to combat tyranny. The literature of nonviolent resistance is filled with penetrating insights in
this area. And, while classical liberals frequently long for alternatives to both electoral politics
and violence, specific suggestions have been sparse. These are merely a few gaps that the
nonviolence literature may fill. On a more aesthetic note, many of the historical examples of
nonviolence are beautiful illustrations of the power of voluntary institutions to supplement or
replace the role of the state.
Finally, the role of civilian protest and direct action in recent anti-communist revolutions
lends a new credibility to the idea of nonviolent resistance. It would go too far to attribute the
demise of communism purely to nonviolent resistance. But it was one important and neglected
factor in the greatest triumph of freedom in the twentieth-century. Classical liberals should
study the lessons that it teaches. In particular, they should learn how freedom may be defended
against tyrannical governments. A central lesson here is that even when the government has
the weapons, there is something that it cannot seize: the voluntary compliance of its citizens.
Without it, maintaining power becomes costly or even impossible. But, as we have seen,
governments almost instinctively sense this risk and strive to prevent it from arising. As La
Boetie explains, "it has always happened that tyrants, in order to strengthen their power, have
made every effort to train their people not only in obedience and servility toward themselves,
but also in adoration" (La Boetie, 75). All that is necessary to prevent tyranny is to let the
citizenry come to know its own strength. Or, in the timeless words of La Boetie, "From all these
indignities [of tyranny], such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver
yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no
more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him
over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great
Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces"
(La Boetie, p. 53). Bryan Caplan is a graduate student in Economics at Princeton University.
Copyright 1994 by the Institute for Humane Studies